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French fashion designer Sonia Rykiel, queen of knitwear, dies at 86

Sonia Rykiel, a French designer dubbed the "queen of knitwear" whose relaxed sweaters in berry-colored stripes and eye-popping motifs helped liberate women from stuffy suits, has died. She was 86.

Praised as "a pioneer" by French President Franç​ois Hollande

French fashion designer Sonia Rykiel, whose relaxed striped sweaters helped liberate women from their stuffy suits and who went on to run a global fashion empire, has died at the age of 86. (Christian Hartmann/Associated Press)

Sonia Rykiel, a French designer dubbed the "queen of knitwear" whose relaxed sweaters in berry-colored stripes and eye-popping motifs helped liberate women from stuffy suits, has died. She was 86.

President François Hollande's office announced her death in a statement Thursday, praising her as "a pioneer" who "offered women freedom of movement."

His office didn't provide further details, and the Sonia Rykiel fashion house in Paris wouldn't comment.

For the generation of women who came of age in the heady 1960s and `70s, Rykiel, with her hallmark bright orange hair, came to symbolize the new era of freedom.

She also penned several novels — including one about a dress and its various incarnations — and figured in director Robert Altman's satirical 1994 look at the fashion industry, Pret-a-Porter.

Rykiel, second left, is seen flanked by Danish model Helena Christensen (from left), American filmmaker Robert Altman and American model Christie Turlington at the end of her ready-to-wear spring-summer fashion show in 1993 in Paris. (Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images)

Designers, fashionistas and French cultural figures offered tributes to her and her influence Thursday, including on multilingual posts on her house's Facebook page.

Fixture of Paris fashion scene

Rykiel got her start by designing knit maternity dresses for herself. She became a fixture of Paris' fashion scene starting in 1968 when she opened her first ready-to-wear shop on the Left Bank at a time when student riots were challenging France's bourgeoisie establishment. The designer's empire grew to include menswear and children's lines as well as accessories, perfumes and home goods, sold in the label's stores on four continents.

French designers Sonia Rykiel, right, and her daughter Nathalie Rykiel, artistic director for the fashion house Rykiel, are seen in 2007 in Paris. (Jacques Brinon/Associated Press)

Her daughter, Nathalie Rykiel, who as a young woman used to model her mother's garments on the catwalk, has long helped manage the fashion house. The business was among France's last major family-owned labels until it was sold to a Hong Kong investment fund in 2012.

Rykiel's star pieces include the "poor boy" sweater — often in black with jewel tone stripes or emblazoned with messages or graphic motifs like oversized red lips — knit tops with embroidered roses and funky, rhinestone-studded berets. She developed new techniques like inside-out stitching and no-hem finishings that embodied the freewheeling spirit of the times.

'Queen of knitwear'

Rykiel, whose maiden name was Flis, was born in Paris on May 25, 1930. She married Sam Rykiel, the owner of a Paris boutique, and had Nathalie at 25.

It was motherhood that put her path of fashion design. After designing maternity outfits, she went on to create knit garments for her husband's boutique, called Laura. By 1970, the fashion trade paper Women's Wear Daily had dubbed Rykiel the "queen of knitwear."

U.S singer Beth Ditto, left, watches a 2010 ready-to-wear show with Rykiel. (Thibault Camus/Associated Press)

Still, early on in her career, Rykiel was wracked by doubts.

When I started in fashion, for the first 10 years, I said to myself every day, "I'm going to quit tomorrow. People are going to figure out that I don't know anything."- Sonia Rykiel

"When I started in fashion, for the first 10 years, I said to myself every day, `I'm going to quit tomorrow. People are going to figure out that I don't know anything,"' she told the Le Nouvel Observateur in a 2005 interview.

"I always thought I'd be discredited in the end."

Instead, she went on to produce decades of collections and became a prominent figure on the Paris cultural scene.

In 2008, Rykiel celebrated her 40 years in business with a star-studded gala and fashion show where her fellow designers — including Giorgio Armani, Donna Karan and Karl Lagerfeld — sent out Rykiel-inspired outfits. Belgian designer Martin Margiela sent out a long red-fringed coat in homage to Rykiel's frizzy red bob.

In 2008, a host of colleagues honoured Sonia Rykiel and the 40th anniversary of her fashion house by creating looks that paid homage to the French designer. (Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images)

The French government honoured her years of service to fashion, making her an officer in the Legion of Honour in 2013.

An avid foodie, Rykiel belonged to the "Chocolate Munchers' Club" and contributed to a cookbook called The Savoir-Vivre of Chocolate.

Her fashion house's website describes her philosophy as "rykielism," a concept that "extols the liberation of women through sensuality, intelligence and irreverence. Rykielism is about having the freedom to be oneself."

Culture Minister Audrey Azoulay praised Rykiel as "a committed feminist" and "exceptional entrepreneur" who "created a style and work that endure."

Her death comes as France is deep in a debate over what many see as a regression in women's fashion and freedom, centered around full-body burkini swimsuits worn by some Muslim women. Some mayors have banned them, and leading politicians say they oppress women — but critics say banning burkinis is simply a new way to dictate what women wear.

Rykiel is survived by Nathalie and son Jean-Philippe. No information about a memorial ceremony was immediately available.

With files from Jenny Barchfield

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